For a long time, pork barrel legislation and corruption have been close companions. Politicians had ways of bringing federally funded projects to their districts, and special interests that stood to profit from those outlays sought to influence the politicians. Members of Congress could insert earmarks to direct spending as they saw fit, and some of them used that power to enrich themselves — not always within the bounds of what was legal.
Who can forget the “bridge to nowhere,” a proposed span between the Alaska mainland and a tiny island that was home to just 50 people? That $233 million scheme, canceled only after public outcry, was the product of an earmark by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. But most people have forgotten former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who went to prison for taking bribes from defense contractors. It was his ability to earmark some $50 million a year that made lobbyists so eager to befriend him.
His case was just one of the lurid scandals that in 2011 prompted Congress to ban earmarks. That move was one of the few issues of agreement between Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama.
At the state level, earmarks (pork) in Illinois are known as “member initiatives,” and the same abuses forced a clampdown on them. Dan Hynes, now one of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s deputies, blocked pork spending in 2002 as comptroller after then-Gov. George Ryan agreed to set aside $100 million for projects that included a $250,000 Jack Benny statue in Waukegan and a lily pond in Lincoln Park — all while the state faced a wide gap in its budget.
In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives, now under Democratic control, has voted to lift the ban on earmarks, and the Senate seems likely to agree. The rationale is that “congressionally directed spending” is a small price to pay to bring about more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in passing needed legislation.
We don’t buy it. Bipartisanship has gone missing even in matters that have nothing to do with federal expenditures, such as Supreme Court nominations and gerrymandering. Republicans and Democrats have starkly different views of what government should do, which often makes compromise unpalatable.
Reviving earmarks won’t change their basic views on policy. What it would do is encourage the wrong sort of cooperation across the aisle — trading favors that help members win reelection by channeling funds to projects that couldn’t survive the usual vetting done by federal agencies.
We haven’t heard the American public clamoring for the return of earmarks. But the idea certainly has some fans. As the Washington newspaper Roll Call reported: “Congressional earmarks practically built the modern lobbying business. And though the influence sector has endured a decade without them, the likely return of member-directed federal spending has sent cautious jubilation down K Street.”
Main Street? Not so much.
Members already have ample incentive to vote for major infrastructure packages, as long as they fund projects that are visibly beneficial to the citizenry and worth the cost. The obstacle to congressional approval of President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” is that it goes so far beyond the traditional bricks-and-mortar investments that command broad support. If Biden is willing to work with Republicans on shoring up roads, bridges, ports and the like, however, there’s a good chance of reaching agreement.
Getting rid of earmarks was a useful measure to curb waste and combat corruption. They should not be returned as an excuse for finding bipartisanship now.